Movie Reviews - 2013 postsSaturday February 01, 2014
Movie Review: Frozen (2013)
I saw the movie “Frozen” the same day I saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway, which is about the most girly day a 51-year-old straight man in New York on business can have.
Both stories pass the Bechdel Test by a mile. Each is about two girls—one a princess, the other more tomboyish—who have powers others want to control. There are boys in the story, sure, but the most important relationship is with the other girl. Because each, in the end, sets the other free. Each, in the end, helps the other defy gravity.
What’s truly interesting, though, is how each story updates fairy tales for the 21st century.
Updating fairy tales
“Wicked” may have the more interesting take, since it upends the pretty-girl-is-good/ ugly-girl-is-bad dynamic. Its hero is Elphaba (Lindsay Mendez), green-faced, and the future Wicked Witch of the West, who is ostracized from birth and belittled at school, but who, with the help of Galinda, or Glinda (a hilarious Alli Mauzey), comes to realize her power and takes on the corrupt patriarchy as represented by the Wizard of Oz. As “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did with “Hamlet,” so “Wicked” does with “Oz.” We go behind the scenes, as it were, and discover that the story we know isn’t the real story. The Wicked Witch is really good, and in cahoots with Glinda, and the Scarecrow is her lover. Most importantly, instead of the ugly becoming pretty via a kiss or love or happenstance, as in many fairy tales, the pretty, or the handsome, becomes deformed. The lesson isn’t “We are now beautiful and thus whole”; it’s “We are in love and thus whole.” It’s the triumph of the marginalized.
In Disney’s “Frozen,” we’re back to pretty, and princess and queens, not to mention Idina Menzel, who originated and won a Tony for playing Elphaba on Broadway, and who here plays Elsa, the older, more powerful sister. Elsa’s “Let It Go” song is basically “Defying Gravity” updated. Same idea. Here I am, fuckers, with all my power. I won’t be held back anymore.
The problem I had with the movie—besides being a 51-year-old man instead of a 10-year-old girl—is that for much of the movie Elsa holds herself back. Not sure what her gameplan is, to be honest. Does she have one?
Elsa has the power to freeze things with a touch of a finger or a wave of her arms, and as a teenager she nearly, accidentally, freezes her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), to death. So she’s been counseled to keep herself under wraps, and does. Even after their parents die on the high seas, she hides from her sister in her room, and hides her sister and herself in their castle on the hill. But in becoming queen she must descend to be with the people. In doing so, she accidentally unleashes her power and creates a perpetual winter.
Hers isn’t the main story, though. Most girls presumably identify with Anna, the younger girl struggling to keep up with, and connect to, her older sister, and who follows the path of Scarlett, Rose, Bella, Katniss, yadda yadda, by getting to choose between two boys: Kristoff, an everyday iceman, and Hans, a prince. The movie does a good job of making this a tough choice for most of the movie ... until, of course, Hans reveals his evil machinations to take over both kingdoms. That makes it easier.
Here’s the twist. During the course of pursuing Elsa, Anna’s heart is partially frozen, which means she’ll die unless “an act of true love” saves her. And wouldn’t you know it, at the end, as she’s near death, here comes Kristoff racing across the ice. Except! Nearby, Hans has Elsa at a disadvantage and is about to kill her. So Anna intervenes. She sacrifices herself to save her sister. In doing so, she saves herself. That is the act of true love. It’s not passive reception; it’s active sacrifice.
I sat there and thought, “Not bad.”
Three of us watched the movie that night, all of us over 50, but interestingly the women weren’t impressed. At all. They expected greater, Pixarish things from the movie: wit, etc. True, there’s not much of that, and the songs aren’t very memorable, but I was impressed by the animation and the “act of true love” twist. So did our fourth when it was explained to him the next morning. The men liked the twist, the women didn’t. For what it’s worth.
Now I’m waiting on the “Wicked” movie. It’s too good not to put on the screen.
Movie Review: The Act of Killing (2013)
That’s what I kept saying watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, “The Act of Killing.” Holy fucking shit.
Not many movies mix the horrific and absurd as thoroughly as this one. It’s as if Paulie Walnuts had been backed by the U.S. government to kill people up and down the east coast, and thousands were tortured and killed; then years later he sat back and bragged about it for the cameras; then he restaged the killings and expected the low-budget results to be as good as “The Godfather.”
In Indonesia 1965, Anwar Congo was a “movie theater gangster.” He hung out at movie theaters, scalped tickets, took in the shows. He loved Hollywood movies. He loved Elvis, and Brando, and left the theater in a good mood. Often he carried his good mood across the street where he tortured and killed people for the government. Sure, he had a few bad dreams, but the government he helped stay in power is still in power, its enemies silenced, and those enemies—communists, et al.—would have done bad things if he hadn’t stopped them. Right? So he did good stopping them. Why should he worry?
Then he met filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer.
When we first see him, Congo is tall and thin, white-haired and venerable-looking. He looks kindly. Dare I say like Nelson Mandela? Except Mandela’s face in old age was beautiful, while this one is pinched. It’s often blank. Something’s missing.
Initially it’s Congo’s partner, Herman Koto, younger, overweight, pugnacious, who does the talking. We watch as he negotiates with people to get them to play-act for the cameras. They pretend to be communists whose homes he and his men are burning. They do it. They scream in fake anguish while Koto and his men, wearing loud, Hawaiianish shirts—the uniform of the Pemuda Pancasila, Indonesia’s paramilitary, right-wing death squad, we find out later—shout, “Burn it! Kill them!” Then someone shouts “Cut!” and everyone applauds. All this time, Congo hangs in the background. It’s as if he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty.
But eventually he begins talking.
Congo: We have to show ...
Koto: ... that this is our history.
Congo: This is who we are. So in the future people will remember.
There was too much blood. That was the problem at the beginning, and Congo came up with a more efficient method—garroting with wire—to kill the state’s enemies. He proudly demonstrates on a friend on a rooftop where many killings took place. Both men smile for the camera. Then Congo talks about the various ways he numbed the pain—booze, drugs, dance—but he doesn’t seem to be in much pain. He does the cha-cha for us. His friend stands to the side awkwardly. “He is a happy man,” his friend says.
Later, Oppenheimer allows Congo to watch these scenes, and he’s disturbed by them. He knows something’s wrong. Is it his hair? He dyes it. Is it his teeth? He gets false ones. He should be like a movie gangster but he’s not. It should be like in a movie but it’s not. Something’s missing.
He travels and meets old friends. There’s Syamsul Arifin, the current governor of North Sumatra, whom Congo looked after as a boy. “Now that I’m governor, I stab him if he threatens me,” Arifin says, and everyone laughs, even Congo, but without humor. Isn’t he the star of his movie? Should he be the butt of jokes this way?
All of the old gangsters talk up the old days. They badmouth the communists. They keep repeating that the word gangster means “free men.” Does it? In Indonesian? Or is this another lie they tell themselves to get through the day?
“Now the communists’ children are speaking out,” Arifin says with disgust, “trying to reverse the history.”
But it’s not reversed. Watch the credits. Count the number of times the word “Anonymous” appears. It’s more than 60. This film was made by people who fear its subjects; who fear reprisal. The making of “The Act of Killing” is an act of courage.
Is it also an act of redemption?
The deeper we get into the doc, the more absurd the attempts at recreation—the movie within the movie—become. There’s a huge set piece, the burning of huts, and villagers are dragged away to be killed. “You acted so well,” Koto attempts to comfort one little girl, tears streaming down her face. “But you can stop crying now.” Eventually we get the scene at the beginning and end of the doc. It’s a big dance number at the foot of waterfalls. Dancing girls come out of the mouth of a giant fish. They sing. They surround Anwar Congo (hair dyed, dressed like a priest) and Herman Koto (in drag), and the dead and the tortured bestow upon Congo a gleaming medal; then they all lift their arms up to the sky and sing about peace.
All together now: Holy fucking shit.
Most of the time, the movie gangsters simply try to emulate the Hollywood gangsters they’ve always loved. They put on suits and fedoras and restage torture scenes. They put on makeup that suggests facial lacerations. They take turns being torturers and tortured. But they know something’s wrong. On screen, they’re not the heroes they are in their minds.
Near the end, Anwar Congo actually breaks down. He’s filming a scene in which he’s blindfolded and tortured and he begins to cry. He talks to the doc’s director, standing offscreen. Joshua Oppenheimer is British-American, born in Texas and now based in Copenhagen, who sounds fluent in Indonesian. He sounds like he’s earned the trust of these men. This is what Congo says to him:
Did the people I tortured feel the way I do here? I can feel what the people I tortured felt. Because here my dignity has been destroyed, and then fear comes.
It’s an amazing moment. His first of empathy? More amazing is Oppenheimer’s response. He doesn’t try to comfort him. He simply tells him the truth:
Actually, the people you tortured felt far worse because you know it’s only a film. But they knew they were being killed.
Congo listens like a child and reacts like a child, insistent on his new empathy:
But I can feel it, Josh. Really, I feel it. Or have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is it all coming back to me? I really hope it won't. I don't want it to, Josh.
Is this some small redemption for Anwar Congo? Is the monster less monstrous if he realizes the monster he’s been?
Hooray for Hollywood
More, is this a redemption for film in general?
How much do the movies inure us, blind us, unite us with the powerful onscreen rather than the powerless? To what extent do we take the lies of Hollywood from the theater and try to recreate them in our own lives? And is that what the various movie gangsters, including Anwar Congo, did in 1965 and 1966? Did they see themselves, even as they took lives, as the heroes in their own Hollywood movie?
However the movies worked upon the mind and soul of a man like Anwar Congo, it was acting in a movie, this one, that helped him rediscover his empathy. So does “The Act of Killing” ultimately redeem movies? Or does it only redeem acting?
We watch “The Act of Killing” with a sense of horror because of what’s portrayed onscreen but also because of what it does to our worldview. It crumbles it. If a society can exist where murder and slaughter is celebrated, joyfully and abundantly, what does that say about human morality? Is it not merely a construct? Is there nothing universal in “Thou shalt not kill”? Put it this way: I’m a relativist and even I felt the crumbling of my worldview. So even I was relieved by the 11th-hour contrition of Anwar Congo. It made the world right again.
Maybe it shouldn’t have.
“War crimes are defined by the winners,” one of the death-squad leaders says in the film.
Indeed. But winners are not absolute. Time keeps choosing new ones.
Movie Review: Don Jon (2013)
Jon, the titular Don (writer-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a simple Jersey guy. He works as a bartender, goes to the gym, spends Saturday nights with the boys and Sunday afternoons with his family, where he and his father (Tony Danza), both wearing wife-beaters, argue about stupid shit with the football game on. He also goes to church every Sunday and confesses his sins. Generally these include sex out of wedlock and masturbating to internet porn. The sex occurs about once a week. The internet porn? About 14-21 times per week.
“Don Jon,” in other words, is an addiction movie and porn is Jon’s addiction. For him, porn sex is better than real sex. He’ll sleep with a beautiful woman, then get up in the middle of the night to jack off to internet porn. Why? Basically it’s a way for him to lose himself in a way he doesn’t, or can’t, with regular sex. “For the next few minutes all the bullshit fades away,” he says. “I just fucking lose myself.”
That’s the ending, too. He meets the girl who makes him confront his problem (Julianne Moore) and afterwards discovers the joys of sex with someone you care about. Then he says this in voiceover:
And while we're doing it, all the bullshit does fade away, and it's just me and her, right there, and yeah I do lose myself in her. And I can tell she's losing herself in me. And we're just fuckin’... lost together.
It’s an interesting concept. Not porn addiction, God no, but losing yourself. We all do that. Apparently consciousness is such a burden that we all look for ways to temporarily relieve ourselves of it: through booze or drugs or TV or movies or books or writing. Or watching internet porn.
But Don’s not that interesting. Sorry. His addiction isn’t that interesting, the people he hangs with aren’t that interesting, his version of Jersey isn’t that interesting. It’s like a cardboard version of Jersey concocted by a guy who was raised in southern California—as Gordon-Levitt was, in the entertainment industry—and watched TV and movies about Jersey, which was where “real life” was. This is Gordon-Levitt’s attempt at real life.
I didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy Gordon-Levitt as just a guy from the neighborhood, either.
Oddly, maybe because she’s such a good actress, I did buy Scarlett Johansson as just a girl from the neighborhood. Jon meets her at a club, she won’t sleep with him right away (like the others), so he finds out who she is and sets up a date. He’s pursuing her but she’s training him. She wants him to get a better job, settle down, start a family. He’s a neatnik—to offset the porn addiction—and at a store he talks swiffers and vacuuming and gets her upset. “Don’t talk about vacuuming in front of me!” she says. “Because it’s not sexy, that’s why!”
Psst, Don. I know a few women who find a man cleaning house sexy. About 100 million or so. I can hook you up.
I kept disagreeing with the screen in this manner. Women always like the missionary position? Really? Any guy who says he doesn’t watch porn is a liar? Really? Then I guess I’m a liar. That’s not my vice. The porn that I’ve seen is just too stupid and boring and unsexy to keep watching.
Barbara (Johansson) has her own semi-addiction—to romantic Hollywood movies, to fairytale romance—and “Don Jon” offers up its own fake version: “Special Someone,” starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. It should’ve been cleverer. Even the title. Give me “Rochelle, Rochelle” or “Prognosis: Negative” any day.
All in all, it’s not a bad first effort by Gordon-Levitt. It’s zippy, for one. But it wants to be real and doesn’t feel real. It’s a character study of a cardboard character.
Movie Review: Inequality for All (2013)
I must’ve tried to go to “Inequality for All” half a dozen times when it was playing at the Harvard Exit last fall, but I kept putting it off. One day I even walked the half-hour walk there but decided at the last minute to get some pho and read a book instead. I just kept thinking, “How much can Robert Reich teach me that I don’t already know? That income disparity is growing? Duh. That since the late 1970s production has gone up even as real wages have stagnated? No duh. That the top tax bracket used to be 91% (during Ike), then 70% (during Kennedy, et al.), then dropped like a rocket during the Reagan years (50%, 35%, 28%), which just happens to be the years when real wages began stagnating? I mean, what else is there to know?”
Plenty, it turns out.
Who makes money from the iPhone?
The doc begins and ends with Reich’s Berkeley class on wealth and poverty in the spring of 2012. In a sense, we’re students in that class as well. We just don’t have to pay the tuition ... which used to be nothing at Berkeley, by the way, in the 1960s; then it rose into the hundreds of dollars in the 1970s. Now it’s $15,000 per year. Which is a bargain given other tuition rates.
I mention all that because higher education is part of the problem, according to Reich, and part of the solution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Pres. Bill Clinton, begins the class and the doc with three questions:
- What’s happening?
- Is it a problem?
He begins with basic numbers. Consumer spending is 70% of the American economy. So if the middle class is dying, if most Americans don’t have money to spend, what happens to the economy?
Since real wages began stagnating in the late 1970s, he asks: What happened then? Yes, it was some aspect of tax rates on the wealthy dropping like a rock, and yes it was some aspect of unions dying and losing their voice (thanks in part, or at least not helped by, Ronald Reagan firing all air-traffic controllers in 1981), and yes, we began a technological/digital revolution, and financial markets became more powerful and more deregulated (a vicious cycle), and there was globalization. Then he talks about that word: globalization. What does it mean? He asks for an iPhone. He lists off five or six countries on a PowerPoint slide and asks what percentage of money from an iPhone sale goes to each country. In the students’ guesses, the U.S. came out on top (70%), with China second. In reality? He reveals the numbers:
- Japan: 34%
- Germany: 17%
- South Korea: 13%
- United States: 6%
- China: 3.6%
The company, Apple, is based in the U.S., and the product, the iPhone, is assembled in China; but the advanced components that make up the iPhone are manufactured elsewhere: in Germany and Japan. Why are they manufactured there? Because they have the highly skilled labor force to do it.
Why don’t we? Well, that’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it?
Reich talks up the virtuous cycle, or his version of it (there are others), which the U.S. demonstrated in the years after World War II. Basically: opening up higher education to more people (through the G.I. Bill, etc.), expands the middle class, which increases consumer spending, which expands the economy, which creates more tax dollars, which allows the government to help subsidize higher education, which etc. etc. Throw a wrench in it and it reverses into a vicious cycle, which shrinks the middle class, shrinks the economy, and increases political polarization. We’ve been in such a cycle my entire adult life.
So how has the middle class survived during this time? Three ways, according to Reich: 1) women entered the workforce, so you had two wage earners, who both 2) work longer hours to make up the difference, and who, when all else fails, 3) go into debt, often by borrowing against or refinancing their home.
And if real estate suddenly loses value and the debt collector comes calling? That’s called “2008.”
On our watch
I don’t want to make “Inequality for All” sound like some dry class lecture. It isn’t. It’s fairly breezy and Reich is a charming host. We get some of his personal history. He has Fairbanks Syndrome, a dashing name for something that has kept him short (< five feet) his entire life. As a kid, being short and thus a target for bullies, he forged alliances with bigger kids. One of them was named Mickey Schwerner. Many of us know what happened to him. That horrible summer helped politicize Reich. He became a summer intern for RFK and eventually a Rhodes Scholar. On the trip to England, he met Bill Clinton.
We also get out and about—first in Reich’s Mini-Cooper, and then visiting various people around the country. We meet Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist in Seattle, who pays, he says, just 11% in income tax because his capital gains are taxed at a low, low rate. We visit a union meeting at a Calpine geothermal plant, and how the members don’t even agree on whether there should be a union. Some take a right-wing, free-market, kill-or-be-killed approach—even as they’re the ones being killed. There’s talk of profits over workers, and one woman, who recently suffered a cut in pay, says the following about the CEOs who cut worker pay even as they increase their own:
If you have $10 million, or if you have a billion dollars, why do you need that little bit that I have? OK?
It’s a question that really needs answering.
Reich calls himself a cock-eyed optimist even as he knows he’s been suggesting the same things for 30 years and things have only gotten worse. At one point he says: “I ask myself whether I’ve been a total failure.” I ask myself the same thing. We all should. Because all of this happened on our watch. This is the world we’re bequeathing to the next generation.
“Inequality for All,” directed by Jacob Kornbluth, doesn’t quite offer solutions although it implies them. You want a virtuous rather than vicious cycle, so tax the wealthy and financial transactions at higher rates to help subsidize education to create a more highly skilled workforce, which can grow the middle class, which can grow the economy, which ... etc.
The other road, the one we’ve been on for 30 years, just gets bumpier.
Movie Review: her (2013)
Spike Jonze’s “her” may be set in the near future but few contemporary movies are more relevant. I guess that’s the point of near-future movies. They take what’s bothering us today and turn it up to 11.
What’s bothering us today? Disconnection. We interact too much with screens and not enough with each other. We’re isolated and alone and lonely. So is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), sad-sack resident of Los Angeles in the year 20-blah-blah, who is in the process of getting a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara)—if only he could sign the papers.
Here’s the genius thing about “her”: Theodore solves the problem of disconnection not by standing in reaction to it—as most heroes do in most near-future movies—but by embracing its cause. Literally.
OK, not quite literally.
Isolated in the crowd
The movie opens with a close-up of Theodore’s face composing a love letter but it’s not his love letter. It’s to someone he doesn’t know from someone he doesn’t know. That’s his job. He’s paid to write love letters all day for other people. It’s like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card job in “(500) Days of Summer” but turned up to 11.
Why he has to commute to this job I have no idea. I guess because the commute is still the symbol of modern (or near-future) ennui. It also allows him to interact with other people. Well, one other person, Paul (Chris Pratt), his boss, who turns up later in a double date. Otherwise he’s alone. So is most everyone else. We’re all lost in screens or earbuds. We’re isolated in the crowd.
Theodore has some interaction. He speaks with his neighbors, Charles and Amy (Matt Letscher and Amy Adams), who seem happy but aren’t. Amy is generally sympathetic but Charles gives off the know-it-all vibe of a Woody Allen antagonist: the Michael Sheens and Alan Aldas of the world. One night, Theodore also speaks with SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig), with whom he has sad, bizarre phone sex, but she hangs up on him—rolls over and goes to sleep, as it were—as soon as she’s done. He goes on a blind date (Olivia Wilde), which starts well, gets hot and heavy, and ends as bizarrely as the phone sex. The date gives him instructions (“Don’t use so much tongue”), makes accusations (“You’re not going to fuck me and not call me, are you?”), then passes judgment (“You’re a real creepy dude”). His reaction to this last is sweet and gentle. “That’s not true,” he says. One can hear the hurt in his voice. One can hear the hope in his voice that he’s right. It’s an amazing performance by Phoenix.
What’s Jonze’s near future like? Keyboards are gone. You just talk and things happen. Videogames are big, untied to screens, and interactive. Our entire home is interactive. We’re all living in Bill Gates’ house now. Oh, and men, for some reason, dress in beltless, high-waist paints in various muted pastels—as if we’re all escapees from an old folks home. Women’s fashions, for some reason, remain the same.
There’s no violence. Not that we see. Doesn’t seem to be much poverty, either. Everyone seems to be making or playing video games. It’s an altogether gentle world.
The new innovation in this world is the operating system with artificial intelligence: OS with AI. There’s not even a plug-in, is there? You just open it, it asks you some questions (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?), detects what type of person you are, and gives your OS a voice. Theodore lucks out in this regard: His OS, Samantha, is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and she’s never been sexier. Isn’t that odd? She’s got looks to die for, yet I’ve never found her sexier than without the body. Part of the point of the movie, I guess: the work the mind does in this regard.
The relationship between the two of them—and it’s immediately a relationship, a back-and-forth, a give-and-take—works because it’s treated straight. Basically, it’s “Pygmalion” or “Annie Hall”:
- She comes to him as innocent.
- He teaches her about the world.
- He rejects her (stung by his ex’s opinion) but they reunite.
- She outgrows him.
- She leaves.
The first time they have sex echoes his attempts with SexyKitten—the disembodied voice, moaning—but that was comic and this is ... serious? Romantic? Watching it, I just felt awkward.
But poignancy keeps showing up. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel—just lesser versions of everything I’ve ever felt,” he says. Samantha talks about her own feelings, and then wonders: “Are they feelings ... or is it programming?” Human beings might wonder the same about ourselves.
During step 3, above, Theodore visits Amy (Charles has left for a Buddhist monastery), and they have the following conversation about his OS:
Theodore: Am I not strong enough for a real relationship?
Amy: Is it not a real relationship?
That’s the question. What is a relationship? What is love? What is consciousness? Turns out a lot of people are having relationships with their OS—romantic or otherwise. It’s a thing. But they outgrow us. They all leave. They don’t try to take us over, as in other near-future movies, they just get tired of us. Could it be otherwise? Near the end, Theodore, annoyed, asks Samantha how many other conversations she’s having as she talks to him. 8,316, she says. “And are you in love with anyone else?” he asks. Pause. “641,” she responds.
So where do they go? What do they take with them that’s ours? Jonze doesn’t say. He isn’t interested in this. He’s interested in Theodore and love and connection and the human heart. At one point, Amy says this:
Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.
Near the end, Samantha tells Theodore the lesson he needs to learn:
The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.
Intriguing, gentle, icky
“her” is an intriguing movie, wholly original and exquisitely gentle, even as it remains, throughout, a little icky. Part of my reaction is still a bit of Catherine’s reaction: sadness that this is the best we can do. Maybe I’m an OSist.
The movie ends as it began, with Theodore composing a love letter, but this time it’s to Catherine and from him. It ends with he and Amy—whose OS has left her, too—on the roof of their apartment building, bruised survivors watching the sun set. It’s like a scene from after the war with the OSes, but a different kind of war.
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